Brown was behind Government's FoI u-turn, sources believe

Prime minister in-waiting Gordon Brown is believed to have personally sanctioned a Government u-turn on proposals to water down the Freedom of Information Act.

Information minister Baroness Ashton revealed to the Commons last Thursday, that in the face of massive opposition from journalists — including Press Gazette's own eight-week Don't Kill FoI campaign — a second three-month consultation will now be held on proposed curbs to the FoI Act.

Ashton said the consultation on the proposed Freedom of Information and Data Protection Regulations will be extended and widened to include submissions on the principle of whether the changes should be made at all.

Ashton is understood to have revealed that her announcement was made after getting approval "across Government", which means that it was agreed by Chancellor Gordon Brown.

Brown, who is a card-carrying member of the National Union of Journalists from his days working for Scottish Television, pledged his commitment to freedom of the press when speaking to editors and executives at the Journalists' Charity lunch last month.

He said: "I do believe the freedom of the press is important to defend British liberties, even in the face of terrorism we can be a beacon in the contribution that a free press makes."

And he said that the Government needed scrutiny "however hard it might be for the politicians of the day".

The new consultation period on the regulations will end on 21 June, by which time Tony Blair may already have stepped down.

The first three-month consultation on the new FoI regulations began in December and prompted Press Gazette to launch its Don't Kill FoI campaign at the beginning of January.

Some 1,250 journalists signed Press Gazette's petition opposing the changes, including nearly every national and regional daily newspaper editor in the country.

The new regulations would result in some 17,000 extra FoI requests a year being thrown out on cost grounds alone.

The rules would allow public officials to take into account time taken to read, consult and consider FoI requests in working out the cost of complying with them.

If costs exceed £600 for Whitehall departments and £450 for other public bodies, requests can be rejected, regardless of the public interest.

The new curbs would also have allowed public bodies to aggregate all requests made by a person, or persons acting in concert or pursuance of a campaign, within a period of 60 working days.

That could have allowed bodies to ration requests for the BBC and other large-scale media organisations.

According to the Newspaper Society the changes would "neuter"

the Act, and according to FoI campaigner Maurice Frankel they would mean: "Any penetrating requests would be very likely to be refused in future."

Inviting fresh submissions, Baroness Ashton revealed that more than 200 responses were made to the first FoI consultation paper.

She said: "The Government invites responses on the points set out in this document and also any other general comments on the principle of making changes to the existing regulations or ways of tackling the problems identified."

The supplementary consultation paper is seen by some MPs as a facesaving way for the Government to kill off the new curbs.

Labour MP Tony Wright, who spearheaded a Commons campaign to persuade the Government to back down, told Press Gazette: "I am glad the Government is now clearly having second thoughts about its proposals to restrict access to the FoI Act and it has listened to the representations we have been making.

"I hope we can have a sensible view about the way the Act is working and recognise its valuable role in opening up government."

Don Touhig, Labour MP for Islyn, who forced a Commons debate which demonstrated cross-party opposition to the FoI curbs, said: "I welcome the statement because I think the Government has listened both to the comments made in the debate and the representations it has received.

"I hope this further consultation will convince it that it is the wrong way to go.

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